workingmanA normal work day. Aitor Aranada/Flickr


Christmas is the family feast par excellence in the Western world but it is also the time when family wounds become more evident and hurt more. Thinking about relatives and friends or talking to the hairdresser or the man who fixes the plumbing becomes a reminder of how many lives today are marked by divorce, single parenthood and the uncertainties of non-marital cohabitation and childbearing. Even when people seem satisfied with their present lot, one cannot help thinking how much easier it would be to celebrate Christmas with them without these shadows lurking in the background.

It is true that there are fewer divorces now than a couple of decades ago, but that is partly because fewer people are getting married, and also because those who do marry are now predominantly from the upper middle class where education, income and culture all help to make (stable) marriage possible. As marriage scholars in the United States have been pointing out for some time, it is among the working class and less educated middle class that marriage is in steep decline.

There will be those who say it doesn’t matter, that we can just rearrange society around the new types of relationships. But, given decades of evidence that the intact, married family is generally happier, wealthier and healthier than the alternatives, family scholars are increasingly exercised over the causes of marriage inequality and how it might be reversed. The focus of their attention lately is men.

One school of thought emphasises economic causes such as the disappearance of manufacturing and construction jobs for less educated men, leading to unemployment and a decline in their marriageability. Another finds that cultural changes provide a better explanation – things like changes in sexual norms, feminism and the meaning of marriage.

In a new book, Love’s Labour Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America, Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin insists that both trends have played a role, but that economic inequality is more likely to have caused marriage inequality than vice versa.

On the Family Studies blog University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox contests this. While praising Love’s Labour Lost, Wilcox says Cherlin’s own data (on the proportion of married men in different occupational groups over the course of the last century – see graph below) show that the decline in marriage started before the surge in economic inequality:

Let me underline the point here: the causal ordering is off, since the retreat from marriage was well underway before dramatic increases in income inequality began. Indeed, the temporal ordering of these events is more consistent with the idea that the retreat from marriage helped to fuel the upsurge in income inequalityin America.




Cherlin does give considerable weight to the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s in making divorce, single parenthood, and nonmarital childbearing more acceptable to the public at large, says Wilcox, adding:

Without the shifts in mores ushered in by these revolutions, the United States might have seen a decline in marriage rates in the last half-century, but it would not have seen the dramatic increase in family instability and single parenthood among the working class that it did. The Great Depression is instructive here, as Cherlin notes: “Despite a terrible job market in the 1930s, there was no meaningful rise in nonmarital childbearing because cultural norms had not changed.” So, America’s family problem is not just about money, it’s about changes in mores that have weakened the links between lifelong marriage and parenthood.

But there’s another cultural factor in the mix of influences on the marriage gap. Men’s role as provider for the family has been eroded not only by unemployment but also by the feminist insistence on equality both in earning and domestic work. While more educated men have adapted to the equality model of marriage (and its accompanying focus on the emotional relationship) less educated men on the whole have not. The provider role is central to their identity and without it they seem less interested in marriage itself.

Some family scholars argue that the recovery of the working class family depends on its men taking the new egalitarian model of marriage on board, and it seems Cherlin agrees to some extent. Yet Wilcox points out that the class divide here may be more apparent than real.

Because, in spite of the fact that college-educated Americans are more likely to embrace egalitarian family ideas in theory, in practice they typically live what might be called neo-traditional family lives that are about as gendered as those of their less-educated fellow citizens.

Data analysed by Wilcox and Robert Lerman in their new study For Richer, For Poorer show that in 2012 college educated men with children in the home earned, on average, 70 percent of their family’s income; in less-educated homes, married men with children earned 72 percent of the income. While the actual amounts they earned were very different, in the average married family men still typically take the lead when it comes to providing for their families.

Furthermore, even today, a recent study tells us that within “marriage markets, when a randomly chosen woman becomes more likely to earn more than a randomly chosen man, marriage rates decline.” All this suggests marriage remains quite connected to gendered patterns of breadwinning, down and up the social ladder.

Wilcox sums up the causes of the marriage gap thus:

From all this, I draw three important conclusions about the “fall of the working-class family” chronicled in Labor’s Love Lost: this fall has been driven by declines in stable, decent-paying work for less-educated men, larger cultural shifts away from a kind of marriage-centered familism, and the erosion of a kind of working-class prosocial masculinity connected to providership. This diagnosis, in turn, suggests the need for a range of policy and cultural initiatives to renew the fortunes of working-class family life in the twenty-first century.

You can read his practical suggestions here. The cultural ones, as you might guess, are the most challenging: encouraging young adults to put marriage before sex and parenthood, and to value fatherhood; getting churches and civic groups to engage less educated people (since this kind of involvement also helps family commitment); and forging a new model of masculinity that encourages ordinary men to be more involved as fathers in their families, and in community roles.

Exactly how this would work for my 20-something hairdresser and her partner is difficult to say. They are giving themselves a dog for Christmas. I asked her on a previous occasion whether they planned to get married and there was some reason they had to wait. She has reason to be cautious – her parents separated when she was four, and Christmas with her family means two celebratory meals in separate households.

Efforts to change such patterns “may seem quixotic,” Wilcox concedes. “But without them, the possibility of reviving lifelong love in the laboring classes will be lost.”

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet